Veteran Brooklyn state Sen. John Sampson borrowed $188,500 from a Queens developer to pay back escrow money he had embezzled and then asked the man to hide records of the loan and lie to federal investigators, a former friend testified as Sampson's corruption trial began Wednesday.
"He said, 'This document could potentially cause me problems,' " real estate broker Edul Ahmad, who turned on Sampson and became an informant, told federal court jurors in Brooklyn. "He told me to tell the government that this money was for legal work he did for me over the years."
Ahmad's testimony highlighted the start of the latest criminal trial of an accused Albany power broker. Former Democratic leader Sampson, 47, allegedly embezzled funds he obtained as a court-appointed referee in foreclosure sales to finance a 2005 run for district attorney in Brooklyn, and then engaged in a cover-up to hide that and other misdeeds.
Because of rulings by U.S. District Judge Dora Irizarry, he is not actually charged with the embezzlement, with doing legislative favors for Ahmad in return for the loan or with trying to intervene with regulators for a liquor store in which he held a secret stake.
Those alleged actions instead form the backdrop and motive for what prosecutors describe in a nine-count indictment as an elaborate cover-up that included efforts to have witnesses hide evidence, recruiting a mole inside the U.S. attorney's office and telling lies to the FBI.
"This lawyer and lawmaker believed he was above the law -- that the law simply didn't apply to him," prosecutor Marisa Seifan said in her opening statement. "He stole hundreds of thousands of dollars, and when he thought he was going to get caught he lied and obstructed justice."
But Sampson's defense lawyer argued that while some of the evidence would "not reflect well" on the former Democratic leader's ethics, he was being charged with some conduct that was not criminal -- the prosecution mole, the attorney, Nathaniel Akerman, said, was only asked for information prosecutors would have eventually had to release.
And Ahmad, Akerman said, was used by the FBI to improperly set Sampson up and induce him to commit crimes on tape that he would not otherwise have committed. "This case is about government overreach and government entrapment," Akerman told the jury.
Ahmad testified that he had been friends for 20 years with Sampson, elected in 1996 to represent Canarsie, and cultivated the relationship because he knew a Senator could help with regulatory problems. He said he took Sampson out to "extravagant" restaurants, and paid for trips to Guyana and Antigua.
In 2006, he said, when Sampson asked for his help replacing stolen escrow funds, he felt he could not refuse. "It would put strain on our relationship, and could prevent me from getting help in the future if I needed it," he testified.
After Ahmad's arrest on mortgage fraud charges in 2011, he testified, he began secretly cooperating and told Sampson that prosecutors had subpoenaed a check register that could reveal the loan and the escrow theft.
When they met, Ahmad testified, Sampson urged him to lie, and never returned the register after looking at it. "He took the document," Ahmad testified, "and put it in his pocket."
The trial resumes Thursday.